Why Africa Supports Kerry

Rory Carroll, writing for the Guardian, has an excellent piece discussing Bush’s unpopularity in Africa, titled “Why Africa Roots for Kerry”. He points out, validly, I think, that many Africans don’t know much about Kerry, except that he’s not George W. Bush, and that’s sufficient to win their sympathies.

At first glance, this is hardly surprising – we’ve all seen various global polling sites demonstrating deep support for Kerry. Globalvote 2004 has closed their polling, with 77% supporting Kerry and only 9% supporting Bush, who finished just ahead of Nader, with 7% of votes. Globalvote got only 1559 African votes, as compared to 80,350 Europeans, and only 71% of Africans supported Kerry, with many (almost 17%) supporting third party candidates. (There’s so much wrong with the methodology of sites like Globalvote that it’s hardly worth a post, but suffice it to say that there’s no guarantee that any of those 1559 “African” votes were actually African.)

Given the easy story about the world being anti-Bush, the most interesting article I’ve seen on overseas voter preferences in the run-up to the election was CSM’s Abraham McLaughlin-authored survey of global Bush supporters, featuring pro-Bush sentiment in Israel, Germany, Japan and other nations. While McLaughlin has been based in South Africa for the past year, and has done an extraordinary job finding great Africa stories, he’s able to find only two paragraphs of grudging support for Bush’s pro-Africa policies.

Carroll finds this quite paradoxical – on paper, Bush has been surprisingly pro-Africa. He’s continued AGOA, which has been a boon for a few African textile manufacturers, though less helpful to agricultural exporters than some had hoped. He’s promised a great deal of new funding to combat AIDS, though it’s unclear whether much of this funding will be approved by Congress. And his administration’s commitment to “reforming” international aid through the Millenium Challenge Account is a great step towards rewarding nations that have made strides in development… though it does nothing to address the needs of people in “problem nations” where the government is wholly dysfunctional.

Let me offer three possible reasons why Bush would have a tough time winning an election in Africa.

He’s not Clinton. Neither is Kerry, but Bush is clearly identified as being anti- and post-Clinton. It’s hard to overstate Clinton’s popularity, at least in West Africa. When I lived in Accra in 1993-4, I got to watch a local sculptor complete a 10-foot tall concrete statue of the American president. (After he coated the statue with gold spraypaint, some of my American friends and I took a photo with us embraced by Clinton’s outstretched arms…) Over the past few years, I’ve seen dozens of tro-tros (minibuses) with Clinton-supporting names or stickers, including the one pictured below, named “Still Clinton”.

While the Clinton administration has a lot to answer for in terms of African policies, the President was perceived as having a personal interest in the continent, and many people felt a strong connection to him as a result. When Clinton visited Ghana, over 100,000 people crowded Black Star Square for a glimpse of him. Needless to say, Bush’s visit last year didn’t generate crowds of this size.

The UN. Knocking the UN is an easy way to score political points in the US. Even pinko commie liberals like myself will admit that UN is often dysfunctional, painfully slow, self-contradictory and frequently toothless. (After admitting this, I’ll go on to point to the dozens of places UN peacekeepers are helping prevent people from killing one another and asking whether anyone really thinks the US would have sent troops to eastern Congo…)

Knocking the UN in Africa is entirely another matter. It’s one of the institutions in which Africans have the best chance of having a voice. Knocking the UN as “irrelavent” basically translates as “Africa, and Africans, are irrelevant”. Add to that the pride many Africans feel at seeing Kofi Annan leading the global body, and Bush’s anti-UN stance doesn’t go over real well.

Iraq See a lot of African nations in the coalition of the willing? There are only five: Eritrea, Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Angola. Before you respond with: “That’s because they couldn’t do anything useful”, allow me to point out that Rwandan peacekeepers are currently policing Darfur, and that Palau, Micronesia and the Solomon Islands (all coalition members) are hardly contributing a lot of ground troops to the effort in Iraq.

The US’s near-unilateral invasion of Iraq looks a lot like colonialism to many Africans. Given how many economic and political ills in Africa are blamed – rightly or wrongly – on colonialism, it’s hard for any African governments to stand with Bush on this issue. Add to that the large, and growing, Muslim populations in many countries, and it’s surprising that the war had as much African support as it did.

Will Kerry be great for Africa? I doubt it. The enormous problems he would inherit from the current administration mean that Africa will likely not be a major priority. Also, Kerry’s protectionist anti-outsourcing stance will make it hard for him to make the changes in trade policy necessary to really balance the playing field for African exporters. But his stated support for multilateralism is a critical differentiator from Bush, and would be a critical issue for African voters… if they had a chance to vote in our elections.

I’ve largely tried to avoid talking about US politics on this blog, figuring that there are countless thousands of blogs already covering the subject. But we’ve had a couple of interesting conversations at Harvard lately about “transparent subjectivity”, and the possibility of blogs being fair by being honest about their biases. So, in that light, I’ll mention that I voted last Tuesday for Kerry. (Yes, that’s an emblogment.) I would be lying if I said that I did so without reservation – I had far more sympathy for Dean, or for the John Kerry who’s been my senator for my entire voting life, a far more coherent, progressive and intelligent politician than the guy I’ve seen in this bloody, nasty campaign. My fingers are crossed for a decisive victory, a short battle over recounts, and the rapid re-establishment of the US as a country that cares about the concerns, sentiments and opinions of the rest of the world. But I’m sure as hell not counting on it.

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